Uber, the controversial ride-sharing app that is useful for people who don’t want to play Russian Roulette in hailing a taxi that doesn’t smell, is a God-sent service for people who want something comfortable to send them home with when they are piss drunk. It has been the app that had single-handedly freed that unfortunately friend everyone has that becomes the ‘designated driver’ role.
In that particular context, it seems all the more befitting for Uber to demonstrate the self-driving truck that was developed by Otto - a startup company they acquired earlier this year - by having it deliver a shipment of beer. Done in partnership with Anheuser-Busch, makers of that all-American beverage - Budweiser, the truck hauled 2,000 cases of beer on a 193km journey along an interstate highway in the United States.
Although the truck was accompanied by a driver on board, the driver was monitoring the truck’s progress along the highway from the truck’s sleeper berth. The truck was guided and steered with the use of cameras, radar, and lidar sensors mounted around it, with the driver present to take over duties when the time came to exit the highway.
While it doesn’t seem that all Budweisers will be delivered via a self-driving truck from now on, Otto is hoping that this demonstration would attract more companies for them to work with. Afterall Otto’s selling point isn’t selling brand new self-driving trucks, but developing the hardware and software that allows them to retrofit existing vehicles. While Otto themselves aren’t revealing exact figures, a recent article says that their autonomous drive system would cost a ‘small fraction’ of the price of a brand-new truck.
Self-driving cars are nothing new today. Tesla for instance, are already selling cars to customers that are able to drive themselves. Whereas manufacturers like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz shoehorning a high-degree of self-driving features into their latest models while maintaining that they can’t drive themselves.
That being said, these features are usually found on prohibitively expensive cars, and to many it is a mere novelty used to impress friends and themselves. Though the freight industry has no place for novelty, the self-driving truck makes a viable business case for many operators.
For starters where truck drivers often need breaks in between to stay alert and out of trouble, a self-driving truck can carry on without needing a mandatory rest. This means that the truck can carry on hauling far longer than a human driver could do without getting fatigued. With its tireless operation, these trucks could not only save huge amounts of fuel by keeping to the speed limit but reduce unwanted incidences simply by avoiding human tendencies to driving aggressively or be distracted.
According to statistics in the US alone, trucks drive 5.6 per cent of the total annual mileage done in the country but are at fault for nearly 9.5 per cent of all driving fatalities. By reducing or even eliminating driver fatigue, such trucks could be made to be far safer on the roads, thus reducing accident rates and - better yet for companies - lowering insurance premiums. This translates to lower operating costs, reducing the bottom line of logistics companies, and in effect push prices down.
By making a strong business case for freight companies, Otto would have a better chance of bringing autonomous driving to the real-world, and in effect accelerate the adoption of the technology in society.
With freight being a huge industry in the US - trucks alone are responsible for hauling 70 per cent of all cargo in the country, or 14 billion tonnes of freight annually - the possibilities that Otto is bringing to the market is game-changing with far wider impact to society that what self-driving cars have to offer.